Fulke Greville 1554-1628
English poet, nonfiction writer, and playwright.
Best known for his poetry, Greville was a prominent politician and a member of the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. While many of his works are primarily concerned with political issues and religious themes, his best known work, Caelica, a poetry collection published posthumously in 1633, focuses primarily on love. Greville also composed three plays and The Life of the Renowned Sr Philip Sydney (1652), a biography and critical study of the works of that author. Although Greville has remained relatively unknown, a number of commentators have argued that his writings merit greater critical attention, and that his aesthetic and political ideas warrant more study.
Greville was born on October 3, 1554, to Sir Fulke Greville (also known as Lord Willoughby de Broke) and his wife, Anne Neville, daughter of the earl of Westmoreland. He completed his early education at the school at Shrewsbury, where he began a lasting friendship with Philip Sidney. The two separated to attend college, and Greville continued his studies at Jesus College, Cambridge; biographers surmise that although he attended the university for three or four years, he likely did not receive a degree. After he completed his education, Greville hoped to travel to London and serve in a political capacity at court, rather than spend his life overseeing his family's properties. By the mid-1570s, Greville and Sidney had gained entrance to the court of Queen Elizabeth I and gradually made inroads into the government, aligning themselves with the radical Protestant movement headed by Sidney's uncle, Robert Dudley. At court Greville became associated with Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, who soon became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. Greville was knighted by Elizabeth in 1597 and was appointed to his first major office, Treasurer of the Navy, in the following year. Although Essex was executed for treason in 1601, Greville's reputation did not suffer by association. Soon after James I succeeded Elizabeth to the throne, Greville retreated to his family estate for a short time, returning to court in 1612. By this time, Greville had begun concentrating more heavily on writing, and composed various treatises in poetic form on such subjects as religion, war, and education. By 1614 Greville had maneuvered himself into the highest positions he would hold in government, including those of Chancellor of the Exchequer and Privy Counselor. Greville held these positions for eight years. In 1620 or 1621, James I named him Baron Brooke, and Greville began to hold offices outside the court, serving in the House of Lords almost until his death. Greville died on September 30, 1628, when a servant, Ralph Haywood, stabbed him in the back because he was dissatisfied with the provisions made for him in Greville's will.
While Greville's early writing career is not very well known, it is generally thought by biographers that he did not write much poetry until after Sidney's death in 1586, and that he began writing plays around 1595. Though many of Greville's works reflect his life as a statesman, his best known work, Caelica, a collection of 109 poems, is principally devoted to topics of love. Forty-one of the poems in Caelica are sonnets, while the remaining works represent a variety of poetic forms. Greville's other significant poetic works, such as A Treatise of Monarchy (1609)—which is concerned with such issues as the origins of monarchy, the problems caused by strong and weak rulers, and monarchy as contrasted with other forms of government—are more directly concerned with moral, theological, and political ideas. Political philosophy recurs as a subject in A Treatise of Wars (1633) and An Inquisition upon Fame and Honour (1633). In A Treatise of Humane Learning (1633), Greville explores moral and theological questions, while A Treatise of Religion (1609) delineates the virtues of the authentically religious life. The Life of the Renowned Sr Philip Sydney, which was written in 1610 but not published until 1652, is a biography of Greville's close friend Sidney and a critical evaluation of Sidney's works. In this study Greville also discusses the influence his friend had on his own life and works, and offers commentary on the politics of the time. Greville's three plays also reveal his concern with political matters. Sometimes described as political tragedies, they were written to be read rather than to be acted. Greville's first play, The Tragedy of Mustapha, was published in 1609 but was written much earlier, probably in 1595. The action of the play depicts the struggle of the title character, the son of Soliman the Magnificent, a Turkish sultan, to retain his right of royal succession against accusations of sedition made by his stepmother, Rossa, who desires her own son to succeed to the throne. Alaham (written c. 1599; published 1633) also features treachery in family and court life. At the center of the play is the Sultan of Ormus—who ascended to the throne by murdering his father—and Ormus's wife, Hala, who equals her husband in evil machinations for the purpose of gaining political power. Greville's third play, Antony and Cleopatra, was destroyed by the author in manuscript after Essex's execution in 1601. Greville took this action because the play would have negatively influenced his career at court—its subject, the travails of a man in love with a Queen, closely paralleled the relationship between Essex and Elizabeth.
Modern scholars contend that Greville has been neglected in the past and continues to be undervalued as a literary figure. Critics such as Fred Inglis argue for the importance of his work, point out his skills as a poet, and maintain that Greville should be classified as a metaphysical poet along with John Donne, Ben Jonson and George Herbert. David A. Roberts, June Dwyer, and Elaine Y. L. Ho have also concerned themselves with examining Greville's poetic aesthetic, exploring his theories on poetry through examination of Caelica and several of his lesser-known works. Caelica has received more critical attention than any other of Greville's works, with scholars such as Gary L. Litt studying the structure of the work, while others, such as Inglis and Ho, consider what the work tells us about Greville's poetic abilities and aesthetic. Caelica and other works by Greville have also been scrutinized by critics such as Joan Rees for what they demonstrate about his political thought and humanistic ideology. G. F. Waller has studied the influence of Protestant divine John Calvin on Greville's works—although some critics maintain that Greville was not a Calvinist, most believe that Calvinism played a profound role in shaping his work. In contrast to his poetry, Greville's plays have been less favorably evaluated and less thoroughly studied, though Peter Ure has examined Greville's use of character in Alaham and The Tragedy of Mustapha. For the most part, critics find these works overwritten and difficult to follow, although some praise is reserved for Greville's ability to portray interesting characters in his dramas. Overall, critics feel that Greville's work deserves further study. Inglis maintains that Greville “… is a great master of technique as well as a master of a particular body of thought, and since such mastery is rare in poetry at any time, Greville deserves much better at our hands than he generally gets today.”